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JIMMIE – WHO ELSE? – TOPS FINAL CUP PRACTICE
By John Sturbin
Courtesy of Jimmie Johnson, a degree of normalcy returned to Texas Motor Speedway Saturday at the close of practice for the 21st annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Johnson emerged from an otherwise ho-hum weekend of hot-lapping around TMS’ repaved and re-profiled 1.5-mile oval to the top of the time sheet after the third/final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice. The seven-time/reigning Cup champion served notice for Sunday’s 334-lap/501-miler with a hot lap in 27.719-seconds and 194.812 mph. Johnson logged 45 laps during the session, more than twice as many as he recorded (21) earlier in the morning.
Johnson’s weekend began with a spin through Turn 1’s re-profiled 20-degree banking, down from 24 degrees, and a nose-tap of the infield wall. He qualified 24th Friday afternoon at 193.251 mph after spinning again in the first segment _ basically placing him light years behind pole-sitter Kevin Harvick’s lap at 198.405 mph. But Johnson completed Cup Practice 2 Saturday morning in 15th at 194.637 mph”¦and will now head into Sunday seeking a seventh series victory in Fort Worth.
Johnson hasn’t allowed the repaved/re-profiled surface – and a Turn 1 that is 20-feet wider at 80-feet – to affect his race day approach.
“I know Phoenix (Raceway), the repave and reconfiguration certainly brought me some heartburn,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS. “I guess maybe I learned my lesson then that I can’t do much about it. And at 16 years in the sport I’m at a point where a lot of these surfaces are going to change. Just comes with the territory. I haven’t thought much about this one, but the Phoenix repave definitely messed with my mojo for a while.”
Chase Elliott, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was second-fast at 27.789-seconds and 194.252 mph in his backup No. 24 NAPA Chevy SS. Elliott crashed his primary car exiting Turn 2 during practice on Friday. Kyle Larson rounded out the top-three at 27.890-seconds and 193.618 mph in the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevy SS fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Aric Almirola led the Ford camp in fourth after a lap at 193.555 mph in the No. 43 Smithfield Fusion fielded by King Richard Petty. Matt Kenseth wheeled the fastest Toyota at 193.465 mph in the No. 20 Let’s Go Places Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing.
Brad Keselowski, the only two-time winner this season, was ninth at 192.954 mph in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford fielded by Penske Racing. Harvick was 12th at 192.417 mph in the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing.
Meanwhile, Trevor Bayne’s otherwise strong weekend was marred when he was involved in a single-car accident through Turn 1. “I wrecked the fastest race car I have ever had,” said Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Performance Plus Motor Oil Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Racing. “I got loose into (Turn) 1 and touched the gray there and if you get out of the groove by a centimeter it’s gone. It’s unfortunate. I know that, I just stepped over the edge.”
Bayne’s best lap of the session was 192.781 mph, good for 10th overall.“I’m really mad at myself,” Bayne said. “We’ve seen a lot of really good guys wreck this weekend so I can’t really beat myself up that much. I was just trying to get it all. It was really just a deal of getting too high. I kept moving my arc out and touched the gray. I didn’t overdrive the corner, just touched the gray and there was no going back. I tried to save it all the way through, gassed up, saw the wall coming and there was nothing I could do at that point. I hate it. I hate it for my guys. I just hope we can recover here and get the backup car as good as the primary because that thing was fast.”